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Since 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - What have we learned?

Posted on 31/3/15 by Pete

On April 2nd, 1968, the world met Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 short story The Sentinel. And we've all been confused out of our minds ever since. Rock Hudson walked out of screenings whining that he didn't understand it. And everybody agreed with him. Almost 47 years later to the day, nobody will now admit that this movie is anything less than profound.

One problem is that 2001: A Space Odyssey is now the canonical hipster flick. Fans like to pretend that there's more there than there is; it is a movie, not to enjoy, but to act smug about as you condescendingly explain to your companion how they just don't get it. The bourgeois masses have this as their esteemed "deep movie," whereas to those of us who take our coffee black, it's trivial. 2001: A Space Odyssey is to deep movies what Pink Floyd is to progressive rock, what Fifty Shades of Gray is to the BDSM subculture, and what, well, Starbucks is to people who take their coffee black.

But what a movie, and what a time to be released! One year later, man would walk on the moon for the first time. The very first Unix operating system was being cobbled together and programmed by Ken Thompson and Dennis Richie. Woodstock was still a year away. And what a disappointment the actual year 2001 turned out to be. No sentient computers, no manned trips to Saturn, no bases on the moon, and most especially no benevolent aliens leading us by the nose to cosmic enlightenment. If this were truly "one of the greatest films ever made" endquote as 80,000 reviews on IMDB assure me, you'd think they'd be a bit more accurate about the future.

Here, here's the whole story: Once upon a time we find a black box on the moon. It turns out aliens leave beacon devices scattered around our solar system to lead us on like Hansel and Gretel following crumbs across the stars, because for God's sake it gets boring out there in space so let's play with these monkeys the way you'd use a laser pointer to play with a cat.

Wait, what about HAL 9000? That was thrown in later. The monkeys who find the first one on Earth? That was thrown in later too. The computer going whacky and killing off the crew until the one guy fights back? Thrown in. "Daisy, Daisy"? Thrown in. None of that was in Clarke's story, the Wiki Cliff's notes right here. And no, HAL isn't a clever cypher for IBM. That's yet another urban myth attached to this movie.

Now, standing on its own two feet, the movie is still good. It is certainly a masterpiece of visual art and Kubrick's magnum opus, as far as film-making goes. It has about as much in common with Clarke's initial point as it does with the Federal Deficit, but for thrown-in, made-up-on-the-spot subplots, they did a better job turning a short story into a long film than, say, they did with The Cat in the Hat. It captures breath-taking ideas better than the standard run-of-the-muck skiffy.

And unlike most of you; I like long boring shots of docking space capsules. Space travel is like that, and I'm tired of hearing zaps and pows and Tie Fighters going boom when they blow up. There. Is. No. Air. In. Space. Sound need air; no sound, no air. Are we clear now?

But wait, what is the meaning of the film?

Oh, that's easy. Aliens leave bread crumbs because they're cosmic zookeepers, and the monkeys showed promise of one day being worth talking to. So they left the first black box to make the monkeys' brains grow, the second black box on the moon which would activate as a cosmic pager to signal them if the monkeys ever reached their satellite, and the far-out black box on Jupiter is a Smart Monkey Trap. Walk through the motive process: "Let's violate the Prime Directive and give these chimps a mental boost. And if it works, we'll know because they'll trip our alarm on the moon. And then we'll catch one and experiment on it when it gets to Saturn."

No, really, they wanted to catch a live specimen of an evolved human. That's why the HAL 9000 went bananas, and why it killed off all but one of the specimens. You get the idea that they do this on every life-supporting planet they come to. Which, you have to admit, does make a lot of sense to do it that way. I'll award the Larry Niven trophy for Believable Alien Without The Rubber Forehead For A Change.

So the psychedelic stuff is the best way to show that actual contact with a fearfully advanced alien is mind-blowing, man! Oh, and if you happened to bring a sheet of blue microdot to the theater, now's the time to drop it.

In the end, I like the technique.

I don't like the story.

I don't like the core message that humans are such hot stuff that aliens can't wait to meet us. I don't like to project human motivations onto unimaginable aliens. If we ever do get to explore space (if we can break free of the shackles of superstition long enough to actually pay attention to science, that is), like as not we're going to find life out there all right... bacteria, and some more bacteria, and one planet that evolved a complex system of lichens, and dusty remnant of life forms that used to be on another planet, and some more bacteria...

Get it? We just can't seem to bring ourselves to imagine extraterrestrial life form without making them humans with superpowers. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes said that if horses could carve statues of gods, their gods would look like horses. We do that. Our gods turn out to be bearded humanoids in flowing robes who wake up in the morning, go to bed in the evening, and micromanage humans' day-to-day lives like a child playing with a doll house.

What we mean when we say "sentient life form," is something just like us. And right now, in the category "most advanced humanoid life form," humans have won first prize yet again, maintaining our 3.2 million year winning streak. Yeah for us. Well, we may be all there is! That's right, sit down and face right now the possibility that by our standards, there has never been and never will be a life form superior to ourselves. We can keep making up as many stories as we want.

But as far as the universe goes, what might count as "supreme beings" probably won't even fit our description. That's fine; we're sure that ants don't care about our definition of a supreme being either. Ants would think of an ideal supreme being as a taller ant. Do you think that's trivial? Well, a far more advanced life form that ourselves would think our frame of reference just as trivial.

What we do care about is that a blank canvas like this movie can at least provoke the occasional thoughtful discussion. So yeah, love your 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's deeper than Star Wars.

...but not THAT much deeper.

April Fools' Spoilers: The Top Five Plot Twist Films

Posted on 31/3/15 by Pete

Hah, gotcha! It was his sled, he was really a ghost all along, and the doctor was a female! Never saw that coming, did you?

Here's a homage to the best movie plot twists in recent memory. We're awarding points for skillful setups, but honestly, how picky do you expect a top five list to be?

If the title wasn't enough tip-off: SPOILERS! How many times do we have to say it?

The Usual Suspects

The canonical movie everybody brings up when discussing twist endings. Yes, this one is brilliantly set up, almost impossible to see coming, and hits you like a shot of heroin. We're stunned after the reveal, mind-blown at the sheer artistry of such a character and what we have just been led through. We're compelled to watch it over and over again so we can see the details. All those props in the office right there in front of us - how could we be so stupid?


In a twisty psychological thriller like this, it's easier to see the plot twist come when we've been so ensnared in Leonard's tortured existence that you don't know what to expect. The rapist could have turned out to be Bozo the Clown or a trans-dimensional alien fog or Leonard himself and we'd just shrug and go "OK, whatever you say." It's still nicely set up, still brilliantly set up, but in a film like this, you were already expecting a doozy. It's like saying David Lynch has twist endings; no he doesn't - David Lynch has twist movies.

The Holy Mountain

Never has there been a twist ending that was so deserved by the rest of the story, and yet so absolutely unexpected. Alejandro Jodorowsky has already stirred our brains with swizzle sticks for a couple hours by this point; we could have had anything from pink elephants to the "all just a dream" ending and it would have made just as much sense. But with a grand hand gesture and the words "Zoom back camera!" we are taken right through the fourth wall while the lecturer doesn't miss a single beat continuing his final lesson. You wanted the meaning of life, you've got it, buster!

The Cabin in the Woods

What could be more beaten than the dead horse that is the teen summer horror flick? Even though this movie is clearly a parody, deconstruction, and general rending of the genre, it's still too little too late. We'll pay our ticket and take the ride anyway, because it is still one awesome ride. It's a lampoon of horror movies while simultaneously being a horror movie no horror movie fan could have anything but the most puppy-eyed love for.

Rear Window

Wait, what? Wasn't that an unexpected ending to this list? Well, yes, and just like your expectations for the last item on this list, Hitchcock played with our expectations with this movie. All through the story, we've been led by the nose to expect that Jeff, Lisa, and Stella were wrong about everything. Every clue had an alternative explanation. Hitchcock made this late in his career; audiences had come to expect the unexpected and then he had to change it up. Throughout this film, he's practically winking at the audience. It's like a practical joker who passes you the sugar and says "Yeah, but it's probably salt, you know I'm always kidding!" And then it really was sugar this time. When the creator does this, he's taking back his original power to surprise, just when you were thinking he couldn't thrill you anymore.

Remembering Leonard Nimoy

Posted on 28/2/15 by Pete

The obituaries have all been unanimous: Leonard Nimoy is remembered for being Mr. Spock. From the New York Times to TMZ, it's Spock this, Live Long And Prosper that.

Yes, Mr. Spock was an influential character. Yes, Star Trek has a huge fandom. But let's remember that the man did something else with his life, OK?

Your humble author will throw editorial distance out the window and confess that his earliest childhood memories of television were of curling up into a ball in front of a static-snowing black-and-white TV with bent rabbit-ears antenna, watching Leonard Nimoy on TV. Not just in Star Trek, but in Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and much later as the spellbinding narrator to the TV-tabloid show In Search Of.... Not just Star Trek, but science fiction as a whole, played a great role in shaping the person he is today, and Nimoy was the gateway to that world.

Here's just one episode of In Search Of... to showcase Nimoy's narrative prowess:

For a kid born in the late 1960s, the Kennedy assassination was a faint legend. It was difficult to understand what all the adults were talking about. But Nimoy could take a dry history subject and turn it into a fascinating quest for answers. It tells you something that Rod Serling was the original narrator for In Search Of..., and Nimoy was selected as his successor after Serling passed away.

Oh, he acted on TV outside Star Trek? You have no idea. Here he is on Bonanza, very far from starships and pointy ears:

But hey, most of his early TV career was indeed work-a-day bit parts and filler. In fact, the Enterprise wasn't even the first stage that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy shared together. No, that distinction goes to... would you believe, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?

There's even a whole generation who remembers Nimoy better as the voice of Galvatron in the transformers franchise:

Not only that, but his interests stretched from photography to poetry. Among his works are his famous paradoxical pair of biographies, I Am Spock and I Am Not Spock, and works of poetry You & I and We Are All Children Searching for Love: A Collection of Poems and Photographs.

Oh, and (because we're posted it before so why not?) singing...

Sure, it strikes you as corny and 60s. But really, you have to admit it: Everything Nimoy did was filled with light and love and wonder.

The point here, is that this isn't just a bunch of Trekkie nerds mourning one whom arguably brought the deepest, most detailed alien character ever portrayed in media to life. Nimoy had many careers and talents - any one of which would have been more than enough to fill a biography. The fact that he mellowed in his twilight years like a fine oak-casked sherry into a stand-alone celebrity widely recognized the world over is just a testament to how well-rounded he was. Even until his final tweet, he inspired.

In the end, it turns out that the Shatner spiel opening the original Star Trek was no fantasy. In many ways, Leonard Nimoy really did boldly go where no man had gone before.


Stupid Movies To Waste Your Winter Time

Posted on 21/2/15 by Pete

Say it with me, America: WINTER SUUUUUCKS! Especially in Boston right now.

Since we're all snowbound and stir-crazy, just inches from grabbing an axe and going all "Here's Johnny!" on the household, we need something a bit more potent for distraction. But this is also the time of year when you've caught up on everything decent to watch, and you also need an outlet for your hate.

Hence, this list. These aren't simply bad movies. These aren't underrated gems. These are STUPID movies. Drain your brain, abstain from pain, and watch these turkeys get slain. At least until they get taken down from YouTube...


But first, we will set your hopes up for the rest of this list. This is actually a fairly passable slasher flick in the style of Italian Giallo grinders of the 1970s, except it's Canadian. Pulp, schlock, cheap thrills abound in this cheesy tale of a producer gathering a bunch of actresses together in his snowbound mansion for a weekend of auditions for a movie role. It keeps you guessing and delivers on the jump scares. And if this is actually your favorite movie, you are one sick little puppy.

It gets far stupider from here on down, we promise.

Mutant (Forbidden World)

This is it: They tried to make a sweeping space opera on a Star Wars scale with a high school drama club budget! Believe it on not, this actually counts as the most professional film on this list, since it was directed by alleged professional filmmaker Roger Corman. Space-hopping drama where they go to a lab on a planet where the scientists are making a big scary monster, and oops, what do you know, it breaks loose and does bad things. Which does happens to look like a vicious attacking pile of poop. Never saw that coming. Believe it or not, these props were all recycled from another movie set. Because you counldn't blow all that money on foil-covered cardboard with embedded Christmas lights and not get some extra use out of it.

The Driller Killer

Brainless amateur effort where you'll never quite decide whether it wants to be taken seriously or not. With a title like that, we don't even have to tell you what it's about. However, the artist studio apartment is a mix of stoner crash pad you regret visiting in college, and hysterical thrift store paintings all over the place because our protagonist is an artist, you see! Nasty and useless, like a roach coach burrito.

Rock n' Roll Space Patrol

Eeeeh, it's a pretty cool movie, it's lightly amusing and doesn't afraid of anything. A movie you could literally make yourself with some friends goofing around, a camcorder, and some software editing. Filmed at scintillating locations like the mall, a vacant lot, a convenience store, an abandoned building in a vacant lot, an abandoned car behind a parking garage... It can't really be said to be about anything but a waste of time. You will not find less demanding viewing anywhere on the Internet. On the other hand, it is absolutely guaranteed to have every bit as much story as every rock video you've ever seen. And for being a laptop production, it's at least proficient.

Cathy's Curse

Oh, you wanted something really horrible? Fine then, here you are, the bottom of the barrel. Even The Room managed to get its edits right. Even Plan Nine From Outer Space managed to tell a linear story that made some kind of sense. This is about a girl possessing, possessed by, or just generally being weird around an apparently haunted doll. Be prepared to get exhausted saying "What the hell was that all about?" after the first ten minutes and then just lay there in agony watching the random lights and sounds bathe your skull in Lovecraftian chaos. Guaranteed to slash chunks of points off your overburdened IQ.

How Deep Is Spirited Away?

Posted on 17/1/15 by Pete

Over the holidays for our usual family viewing, I ran across an old favorite: Spirited Away. This is the much-celebrated 2001 Studio Ghibli anime classic by Hayao Miyazaki. The American import won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, among numerous accolades, and also stands as the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. It gets routinely lauded with such comparisons as the Japanese Alice in Wonderland.

I was struck by how the film never wears old. Just like the Lewis Carrol classic or other fantasy works like Mary Poppins, even if you know the story by heart, you can sit through it again. It's so chock full of wonder, unforgettable characters, fantastic atmosphere, detailed art, together with being a whirlwind of a fantasy story that immerses you quite firmly into its own world.

Which got me to wondering, what is it about this film that sets itself apart? For one thing, Miyazaki set out to make an inspirational story for girls and deliberately made Chihiro an "every-girl," somebody the audience could identify with. She isn't just a helpless damsel getting rescued by a random knight, she's the whole action, getting through her harrowing adventure using only wits and guts.

Here's one point: Chihiro's character develops over these 125 minutes. She goes through that tunnel as a spoiled whiny girl, and comes out a young woman. In fact, all of the major characters have depth and make a personal transition by the end. Haku solves his problems with Chihiro's help, Yubaba gets taken down a notch, Zeniba gets to show her unexpectedly good side, Lin drops a little bit of her snarky attitude by the end, a stink spirit is transformed into a river spirit, No_Face starts out as a monster of greed and ends up as a weaver's apprentice, and even the rest of the cast goes from hating Chihiro to cheering for her at the end.

You know how far Alice gets in Alice in Wonderland? It was all just a dream, never mind. And Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz? That was just a dream too, and the best Dorothy learns from it is there's no place like home. And how about Ariel in The Little Mermaid? She didn't learn a damned thing; she got herself in a huge mess chasing a fool prince and everybody else bailed her out. You get the picture.

For another point: The world of Spirited Away is internally consistent. Despite the apparent mad shenanigans happening everywhere, the characters within act logical from their own frame of reference. They aren't just madcap oddballs pitched at us to fill time; we get to explore the world fully to understand each character's business and why they do what they do. The spirit world appears not only nonsensical, but stark and threatening, and yet by the end we see how it all works together.

For yet another point: The characters are all three-dimensional. There are no Prince Phillips or Sorceress Maleficents here, no black-and-white heroes and villains. Even Haku, filling in the rescuing hero role for Chihiro from time to time, works for the big bad Yubaba, so his alignments are questioned.

But one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Spirited Away is that it's truly a grim and dark tale for a children's story. A little kid, terrified out of her mind, is left to her own devices as her parents are transformed, and not only is it up to her to save them, but she has to fend off several varieties of deadly peril along the way in an alien world. Furthermore, she has to do so the way an adult would; the first task she has to accomplish is to get a job. Throughout the story, she has to deal with full grown adult characters on their own terms, with no concession given to the fact that she shouldn't have to be solving any problems bigger than multiplication tables at her age. At no point do cute mice and birds break out in a silly song and dance number for a three and a half minute break. Heck, Chihiro even has to solve the problems of river spirits, witches, and a whole bathhouse, all while being denied such basic resources as even a name.

No, there's just too much going on here for a mere animated feature. Works like Spirited Away simply do not happen in this imagination-starved Western world. How sad for our culture that this film is the exception and not the rule.

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